- Time stops in Mary Kom. Almost Matrix-style. The final scene features an interwoven mesh of spit-blood, baby-blood, opened eyes, wrapped hands, and a radical approach to what Edward Said dubbed “Orientalism.”
- I’ve seen the film twice, both times in Hindi without English subtitles or overdubs; however, during the screenings I was seated next to folks fluent in Hindi who explained certain lines or plot confusions. Mary Kom follows a fairly common boxing underdog story. Anyone who’s seen Rocky or Raging Bull can understand the basic narrative arc of the film without speaking the language.
- “Boxing” is the most commonly used word in the film, and it’s always said in English. Although a Hindi word for boxing exists, I’ve been told it’s practically a Medieval term. Most Bollywood films these days feature “Hinglish,” a grab-bag combination of primarily Hindi and seemingly random English words and phrases like “I love you,” “you know what I mean” and “sugar-free biscuit.”
- The still-swinging “MC Mary Kom,” or Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, aged 31, is a real boxing “World Champion” from the northern Indian state Manipur, and, as several women at the screenings noted with wild grins, a mother of three. Manipur’s current governmental state of affairs involves a separatist militant group, the Revolutionary Peoples Front, who has banned the screening of all Hindi-language films as a protest against the massive Bollywood film industry. To the dismay of both the real Mary Kom and the actress portraying her in the film (Priyanka Chopra), no theaters in the region will show the film. Apparently, pirated DVDs of the movie are already passing through Manipur for a little less than the price of an autorickshaw ride: 30 rupees.
- Beyoncé’s “strong enough to bear the children / then get back to business” from “Run the World (Girls)” compose the perfect tweet-long summary of Mary Kom. There’s a remarkable amount of enthusiastic feminist power in this movie, and, as a government-sponsored film (we saw it tax-free in the state of Rajasthan), it arrives at a time when that power is very much needed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed women’s empowerment and India’s current rape crisis during his speech on Independence Day. The improvement of women’s lives is on the minds of those in high places in India. Some doubt if change will actually happen, but, if anything, these discussions are out in the air.
- The primary difference between Beyoncé’s feminism and Mary Kom‘s relies on their respective treatments of female sexuality. While the film’s content comes across as very violent (spit-splatters, knock-outs, and blooming bruises galore), Mary Kom represents an incredibly chaste sexual attitude. Mary Kom‘s most sexually explicit moment arrives at the beginning of the film, when, surrounded by police and members of a rebel group, a very-pregnant Mary leans her head back Ecstasy of Saint Teresa style and lets out a moan. This isn’t an unfair comparison, and probably plays into the film’s “chaste” quality, too: Mary Kom performs devout Christianity. She kneels and prays at her corner in the ring before the bell strikes for an opening round. She marries in a Christian wedding (miles away from the invite-all-your-friends-and-family-and-their-friends-and-family-too Hindu wedding celebrations). She wears a cross-necklace. She lights a candle at the altar of the Virgin Mary every morning. For the current national sport symbol to identify as Christian in India, where 80% of the population identifies as Hindu, strikes me as really bizarre and a definite element of this movie being “based on a true story” and not fictional. It is also rallies against the false understanding that “Indian” is synonymous with “Hindu.”
- And, sure, one can undertake a Freudian reading of the film: movie-Mary-Kom’s complicated relationship with her father; the boxing ring as womb wherein Kom, child-like, often dances and bops around after winning a match or a medal; the boxing bag as a giant phallus getting beaten, etc. – but there’s only so much one can productively play out of this reading, and it doesn’t take us anywhere, historically and analytically. That being said, it’s a film about the empowerment of women in the realm of heterosexual marital bliss with bouncing babies. But the centerpiece of boxing flips gender. Mary Kom’s father comments in an early scene (loosely translated), “Girls are fighting – what is happening to this country?” The audience chuckled, but the comment drives a fierce point home: if men are fighting, that’s perfectly fine – if women are involved in boxing, the nation is falling apart.
- Mary Kom, boxing world champion, proud mother of three, who claims “India is in her heart” – what better real-life hero could India have at this moment in time?
- A good go in the direction of gender can sometimes unfortunately come coupled with under-thinking other elements, such as race. To the dismay of some, Priyanka Chopra, a popular Bollywood actress, model, and singer, was chosen to play the protagonist. This criticism fell on racial lines. “[The real] Mary Kom is not from the south or the north of the Vindhyas; nor does she have the typical ‘Indian’ look,” commented A. Bimol Akoijam, writing in an Op-Ed for The Hindu. “But, presumably, [Bollywood] will not accept somebody who doesn’t have the typical ‘Indian’ look to play her role.” Akoijam details this problem historically, stemming from:
“Racial ‘othering’ play[ing] out sharply in the case of India’s Northeast. [The saying] ‘South East Asia begins from India’s Northeast’…speaks of an entity which is politico-geographically South Asia but racially and culturally South East Asia…And when this ‘racial other’ is positioned as ‘backward’ or ‘tribal’ (anthropological subjects), it
produces a judgment that converts the ‘difference’ to being ‘inferior.’ This informs the racist attitude towards the people from India’s Northeast.”
- Many responses to A. Bimol Akoijam’s piece, published as response op-eds or comments on The Hindu website, were largely negative, defining his argument as overblown and over-academic, as reading issues in places where they don’t exist. One point that does make a certain degree of sense to me, however, involves casting based on popularity. Mary Kom is a wide-release Bollywood film. While there are no dance routines or big hit singles (nearly crucial for a Bollywood film to succeed), it’s still a film that needs to, at least, break even. Casting Priyanka Chopra ensures that audiences will come and see the film. This by no means excuses the question of race. And the filmmakers, screenwriters, and producers display awareness of race in the film: if they weren’t aware of race, the movie wouldn’t contain any dialogue or plot-points dealing with race. The problem involves a mainstream audience refusing to talk about or see race when it’s clearly presented as a crucial element of Mary Kom.
- Mary Kom’s home state, Manipur, located in northeast India and bordering China, has dealt with race for some time, due to the “mixed” racial makeup and “not-quite-Indian-not-quite-Chinese” identity challenging its people. I stumbled through a protest in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar during my first week in India, having absolutely no idea what people were shouting and burning effigies about. To “respect the Indo-Naga peace talk” claimed one sign, though I read later that the protest sprawled out of a response to the killing of two students in the Ukhrul district by police. Another protest regarding Manipur, and the “imposition of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code of India (CrPC),” a move that brought a heavily armed government-sponsored security force to Ukhrul, occurred while I was still in New York, on August 16.
- Yet Mary Kom takes up the mantle of India. In the film, she paints the Indian flag on each individual fingernail (which was, like, logistically a minor quibble I had with the movie. How were her nails so intact after that many boxing matches? Maybe this is an element of boxing I don’t understand. Her knuckles, however, took a beating for sure, and the movie “pulls no punches” in this regard). If you’re looking for subtlety or nuance, you’ll find very little in Mary Kom. At the end of the film, the Indian national anthem “Jana Gana Mana” plays, and text flashes on the screen inviting the audience to stand. Everyone, in both screenings I attended, rose to their feet. Then the lights went up.
- The all-rise-for-India occurs after the intense time-stopping final boxing match I mentioned earlier. In fact, all of the material between the start of this piece and where we are now can be outlined during that scene. Shot in a bizarre mixture of camera techniques – slow-motion, Mary Kom’s face filling the screen as she receives and gives punches, shaky, almost-documentary style – the final scene features a count from one to six that literally (I timed it) lasts four minutes. The editors applied this weird deep vocal effect as well (oddly very popular in hip-hop songs circa 2011-2012, and recently spotted in Beyoncé’s “I Been On/Bow Down”) and made the boxing referee sound like Darth Vader. It’s incredibly stylized and over-the-top and stressful. After the match and national anthem, the movie just ends on a national-pride high-note.
- Edward Said’s Orientalist framework kicks in here. Mary Kom can represent the classically “feminized” India – she’s a mother, she milks her family’s cows in the morning – but she also represents a kickass iteration of India. As Mahatma Gandhi writes in Hind Swaraj, his famous critique of colonized India in 1910, “The English have not taken India; we have given it to them.” Mary Kom is certainly not “giving” India to anybody; she claims it for her own. She, in a sense, represents a step beyond the Gandhian Orientalist India, where obviously non-violence is off the table, but her violence manifests itself as a controlled violence. And, as I stated previously, there are elements of her character, despite the aggression, that are still very “feminized” – after the final victorious match, she’s crying and crumpled in the corner of the ring. The film portrays the character as walking a tightrope of gender tied to Orientalism. Does she represent the invented and feminized Gandhian India? Does she invent a “new” India? I’m not sure where the answer lies, but I do know that the film’s “World Championship” narrative cannot exist without setting up an East-West Orientalist divide.
- A woman known only as “Sasha,” who represents Germany’s boxing team, becomes Mary Kom’s main rival in the film. Before Sasha and Mary’s first match, an announcer says one of the few full-English lines, the eye-roll-inducing claim that, “the Germans are known for going out and conquering!” It would’ve been way too on-the-nose to make her rival British, and this is “based on a true story” after all, so a certain script does have to be adhered to regarding nationality (although I don’t know if “Sasha” is a real-life boxer or an amalgamation of several other non-Indian women fighters). Mary Kom beats Sasha. India triumphs over the world. Now, in such a time as this, Mary Kom presents a Bollywood audience typically subsisting on a diet of saccharine pop-dance-numbers, clichéd love-laced plot lines, and bad jokes with difficult topics like gender, race, and religion. While Mary Kom‘s answers may be too simplistic, it’s hard to not appreciate their wallop.